MCHSO focuses 10th annual symposium on adolescent health

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The USF College of Public Health’s (COPH) Maternal and Child Health Student Organization (MCHSO) held its annual symposium on March 1.

The MCHSO educates, connects and creates opportunities for students interested in the field of maternal and child health.

The theme of this year’s event—its 10th—was “Reframing Adolescent Health: Changing Social Norms to Build a Healthier Future.”

The symposium’s keynote speaker was Dr. Michelle Forcier, a pediatrician and director of Gender and Sexual Health Services at Lifespan Physician Group, Adolescent Health Care Center, in Providence, R.I. She is also an assistant dean of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University in Providence.

Forcier addressed the crowd, made up of mostly undergraduate and graduate students along with some faculty, on the challenges—and importance—of developing a culture that affirms and supports gender-diverse youth in the health care system and society.

Michelle Forcier, MD, MPH, spoke on gender-diverse youth and the challenges they face in the health care system and beyond. “There is so much we can do,” she said. “And so much we will not tolerate in the future. So let’s talk about doing our part.” (Photo by Anna Mayor)

“I look at medicine and public health as service professions,” said Forcier. “And my question is, are we doing our part?”

When compared to their cisgender peers (cis refers to a person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth), Forcier says that LGBTQ+++ adolescents and teens have significantly higher rates of:

  • depression
  • suicide
  • substance abuse
  • sexual violence

Because of these factors and others, gender-diverse teens tend to have poorer health outcomes than those who are cisgender.

“There’s nothing pathologically, diagnostically, morally, ethically or biologically wrong with gender-diverse and sexually diverse youth,” said Forcier. “It’s all about how our culture views them. It’s an external stigma, and that’s unacceptable. It’s our duty, our responsibility, as health professionals to recognize that. Even a little decrease in rejection can have positive health outcomes.”

Forcier urged the audience to be vigilant when it comes to improving the health of marginalized youth.

“There are so many ways to intervene—don’t miss an opportunity,” she said. “How can we provide resilience against some social negative stresses? How can we identify transgender youth earlier? How can we change the culture in schools? How can we promote family acceptance? Don’t underestimate your power as health professionals. These kids will be looking to you.”

Following Forcier’s address, a panel of experts examined the major sexual and reproductive health issues facing today’s youth.

Tops on the list: Lack of access to medically accurate, unbiased sexual health information.

“Only 24 states and Washington, D.C., require any sort of sex education in the schools,” said Dr. Dae Sheridan, a clinical sexologist and licensed mental health counselor. “And of those, only 13 require the instruction to be medically accurate and just eight require conversations about consent. We have to do a better job. We have to talk earlier and we have to talk often.”

And we have to be prepared for the backlash that comes with talking about a sensitive subject, said Dr. Diane Straub, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist.

“I can’t tell you how many kids come in to see me and say that contraception is dangerous,” Straub commented. “I tell them that while they do have a slightly higher risk of developing blood clots while on birth control pills, they have a 15 to 40 percent chance of developing them if they get pregnant. When people start to manipulate the data, we as health care professionals have to hold them accountable. You don’t just get to take information out of sources because it doesn’t fit your agenda.”

Panelists discussed sexual and reproductive health in teens. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

Dr. Stephanie Marhefka, a COPH associate professor of community and family health, echoed the theme of better sex education.

“Use your voice,” Marhefka urged the audience. “Don’t shy away from using words that are going to help and heal and save lives.”

“There is stigma and taboo,” added Sheridan. “But there doesn’t have to be. Saying words like human sex trafficking and child sexual abuse seem to be easy for us. But if we say the word vulva, there’s a taboo. We have to stop, what I call, ‘awfulizing’ sex.”

That’s a sentiment that resonated with several students in attendance.

‘I really like how the talks focused on the LGBTQ community, teens and sexual health,” said Reatta Ram, a second-year MPH student concentrating in global health and epidemiology. “As public health professionals, we need to concentrate on having open conversations and not stigmatizing these topics.”

Some members of the USF MCHSO posed with faculty advisor Russell Kirby, PhD. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

After breakout sessions on suicide prevention and addiction and some skill-building activities, attendees regrouped in the Samuel P. Bell III Auditorium for the afternoon keynote address on the sexual exploitation of America’s youth, delivered by Amanda Corbin, a USF School of Social Work adjunct professor.

Amanda Corbin, LCSW, MSW, spoke about the sexual exploitation of youth. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

Corbin outlined what sex exploitation is (abuse of power for a sex act), who traffickers are (91 percent are people the children know and trust) and what makes children vulnerable to exploitation (homelessness, domestic violence, having an incarcerated parent and other adverse childhood experiences).

“Anywhere you find a population that is considered ‘less than’ in a culture, then you have a population that’s vulnerable,” said Corbin.

For those in the audience working with marginalized youth, Corbin advised them to “see the teen before the trauma. Develop a rapport with the child, get him or her into a safe setting. Then you can start to unravel the yarn and help them rewrite their normal to a new, healthy one.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health